Turf Magazine - March, 2012

FEATURES

Propane Power On the Rise

Two successful landscape pros tell what they're doing to combat the rising cost of gasoline
By Carol Brzozowski

Jim Bloodworth, owner of Cutting Edge Landscaping in Juliette, Ga., was concerned as he watched gasoline prices go up and down "like a roller coaster." While many of his company's clients have 12-month contracts, most of the commercial contracts are for three years.


All Seasons Landscaping in Lohman, Mo., converted its six Exmark mowers to operate on propane during the 2010-2011 winter off-season.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ALL SEASONS LANDSCAPING.

"If you get in really well with a client, the worst thing in the world is to go back to them after several months and tell them you need to add a fuel surcharge," he says. "Business is already so competitive that normally there's only hundreds of dollars that separate you and the next competitor."

Having to institute a fuel charge after a contract is in place "is not fair to the customer and not fair to the company with the up and down prices," Bloodworth says. To address that price volatility, he's doing what many landscape contractors are now doing: converting their equipment to propane and their trucks to autogas.

Fuel costs have run high for Cutting Edge Landscaping. The company puts a lot of wear and tear on its equipment and vehicles. It services a big chunk of central Georgia, from Atlanta's southern neighborhoods all the way south to St. Simons. The company's services include chemical and/or organic lawn applications, lawn maintenance, landscaping, irrigation, hardscaping and tree removals.

"That's a huge difference in this market," he adds. "Propane allows you to be able to provide consistent service with a consistent price base with a customer because you lock in a price for propane for 12 months."

Like others in the industry, Bloodworth is concerned about fuel prices, fuel sources and politics that affect both. "We sleep a lot better at night taking that out of the equation," he says.

Bloodworth plans to have his company's 28 Exmark mowers running on propane by early April when the mowing season kicks into high gear. He also plans to convert company trucks to propane autogas, starting with an account manager's truck.

Blossman Gas, Sharpsburg, Ga., began making conversions to his mowers in 2011. It's also working with Cutting Edge Landscaping to set up on-site dispensing to refill its own cylinders, and is training company employees on the safe use of propane. As of this writing, six of the company's 102 employees (the company maintains a staff of 138 during peak season) had already received extensive safety training.

"With OSHA, there are requirements as to how far away the dispensing tank has to be from the building," Bloodworth says. "You have to have barriers put up in front of your onsite fueling and wear safety equipment, such as ear plugs and safety glasses," explains Bloodworth, adding that, aside from that, refueling cylinders is simple.

"You just attach the tank and fuel it. As long as you keep it away from open and direct flames and keep the mowers from backfiring," he says. "You want to be conscientious about the level of propane in the air when you're transferring your fuel back and forth between the tank and the refueling station."

Bloodworth concedes it's a "large commitment" to convert machinery to propane, obtain the training to take care of the engines and deal with the conversions on a daily basis.

Conversion kits run from $700 to $1,200, he says. "There's an EPA-approved and regulated kit, which has to go onto any motor that's still under warranty by Exmark. That's the $1,200 kit. Then there's the $700 kit that goes on any mower that does not have to have the warranty tied into it by its manufacturer," he says. The cost to convert trucks can run up to $8,000 per vehicle. "That's expensive, but you get it back in the long run," says Bloodworth.

He credits Blossman Gas for helping his company make the transition smooth. "They sat down with staff and made sure the motors are tuned and running correctly and they have taken care of all of the details that arise when you swap over from one phase to the next," he says.

Bloodworth notes the conversion to propane as well as the company's set up for dispensing it on site is starting to pay for itself. Client contracts are also being amended to address the change on a per-client basis. "We're doing some mid-stream adjustments, offering them some savings," he says. "It's moving forward and all of our clients are receiving the benefits of it," says Bloodworth.

There's been a greater response to the propane conversions helping the environment, Bloodworth says. In Atlanta, for example, there are days when people are asked to refrain from running certain types of power equipment, he says. "A lot of the larger companies in Atlanta ask you to adhere to those days, so you can't service a lawn if you're not running propane. I have a really strong inkling that's coming into the secondary markets like ours, too. I don't want to have to stop work. I want to reduce my carbon footprint. I think if we start now, we can be ahead of the game."

For Bloodworth, the benefits transcend financial considerations. "Propane makes the most sense not only with us trying to be very conservative financially, but conscientious with our environment," he says. "I make my money off of the environment. I definitely don't want to be the one destroying it with greenhouse gasses."

After all of the mowers have been converted to propane, Bloodworth intends to promote his company's efforts through marketing. "We're going to start putting up some billboards this season showing that we have it," he says.

Propane is "the wave of the future, even with two-cycle equipment," Bloodworth is convinced. "We're not quite there yet where it's feasible for us to do that, but we are with the bigger engines with the mowers and the trucks. We're trying to take advantage of every avenue we can to promote this industry going that way."

Another convert

For years, Kris Scheperle, president of All Seasons Landscaping in Lohman, Mo., considered converting his company's equipment and trucks to propane. Scheperle oversees a busy operation that includes commercial and residential mowing, fertilization, erosion control and some construction work, such as the installation of water lines and sewer systems. The company services a 100-mile radius.

Providing those services takes a lot of equipment and encompasses a good deal of operating expenses.

"It had to make sense at least to be a wash or a money savings," he says of converting the equipment to propane. "It was a combination of things that made the decision fairly easy. We have been trying to tighten our belts and find ways to reduce our costs so we could save a lot of money on fuel costs and prolong the life of our equipment and be green at the same time."

Like other landscape contractors, Scheperle also has concerns about escalating energy costs.

"Propane has stayed fairly level as far as a fuel cost over an extended period of time, whereas diesel and unleaded seem to fluctuate so much. When you start approaching $4 and $5 a gallon gasoline, it really makes propane a lot more feasible," he comments.

Incentives from the Missouri Propane Gas Association also helped pave the way for the conversion.

All Seasons waited until the 2010-2011 winter to convert six Exmark commercial mowers to propane. MFA Oil Propane, his propane provider, installed an on-site dispensing system that included a 1,000-gallon tank and a no-spill dispenser. Scheperle and five employees participated in propane cylinder refueling safety training conducted on site by the Missouri Propane Gas Association. The training included two hours of classroom instruction, including a video review, followed by one hour of hands-on training on how to refill propane cylinders by weight. Other training focused on the use of PPE such as gloves and protective glasses, cylinder leak detection and proper cylinder alignment on a mower. At the conclusion of the training, the staff took, and passed, a written test of more than 25 multiple choice and true/false questions.

Scheperle and his staff are now state certified to fill propane cylinders onsite, and are certified to fill for autogas. He says while his company could derive a small revenue stream by filling for other people, it hasn't come to that point yet.

One of the key components in training was the realization that "you're dealing with a totally different type of fuel than what most people are used to," Scheperle says. "It's a fuel that's in a liquid form, but it has different properties. It's a very cold liquid, it's so cold that it would burn you, so there are certain types of safety equipment that's required, safety glasses and specialty gloves."

The conversion involved kits that convert a standard motor from unleaded to propane. "They can be used as dual fuel purposes where you can still have the unleaded and propane and you can switch back and forth," Scheperle says. "We chose to switch totally over to propane."

Scheperle expects to see a return on his company's investment within two years. There were costs incurred in setting up the filling station and installed specialty electrical equipment.

One of the biggest challenges came when the staff tried to do the conversion themselves. "We tried to do it through our local propane rep and we definitely had some issues with the equipment and the conversion process," he says. "We worked through it. There's always a learning curve with trying anything new. Now we feel like we understand things better. We can go forward in this next season and hopefully we won't have any problems at all."

Scheperle plans to convert two new company trucks to autogas this year. "It's a lot more than the mowers," he says of his company's efforts. "It just seems to make sense to push forward and do this in other things as well."

The Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) was authorized by the U.S. Congress in 1996. Its mission is to promote the safe, efficient use of odorized propane gas as a preferred energy source through research and development, training, and safety initiatives.

Roy Willis, PERC's president and CEO, says lawn and landscape contractors across the country who have adopted propane-fueled commercial mowers have done so because they are cost-effective, easy to refuel, and provide necessary performance to deliver environmentally responsible service.

"These early adopters saw the sound business case for propane mowers that enable them to reduce the impact of their business on the environment without sacrificing performance," says Willis.

There are several advantages of converting to propane, Willis notes. "The cylinder exchange model allows contractors to replace propane cylinders efficiently and quickly, saving both time and money, since there is no need to travel to an offsite fueling station," he says. "Cylinder exchange programs include installation of a storage cage by a propane provider in a centrally-located area that is easily accessible to mower crews."

Contractors who require a large volume of propane can have a propane provider install onsite dispensing, with an onsite refueling infrastructure that includes a large tank and a no-spill dispenser to refill empty mower cylinders and work vehicles fueled by propane autogas, he adds.

"Because they can operate on ozone action days in many jurisdictions, propane-fueled mowers reduce costly downtime," Willis notes. "They also save money by eliminating fuel spillage."

Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at brzozowski.carol@gmail.com.